Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year

Aside from Twilight Zone marathons, the one New Year's show I watch regularly is the countdown at Time Square with Dick Clark on "Dick Clark's Rockin' New Years Eve." I don't watch the actual show, mind you - if I want to see performances from flavor-of-the-moment pop stars (sorry Carrie Underwood fans), I can watch them on YouTube. But there is something about having a shared experience with millions of people on live television that really rings in the New Year.

Dick Clark had a well-publicized stroke, but he's still counting down like he always does, even if the speech is a little slurred. I guess even a loss of blood to the brain isn't enough to stop America's Oldest Teenager.

New Year's Day is pretty fun, too. Time to watch the Florida Gators play the Michigan Wolverines in the Capital One Bowl. In any event, have a safe and fun January 1st, everybody!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Tech: The Best of Xbox Live Arcade

The Xbox Live Arcade is a service where Xbox users can buy and download games right from their living room. These titles range from simple arcade ports of retro classics like "Frogger" to new titles developed specifically for the XBLA. Unfortunately, the quality of the average game on the XBLA is middling, and a few of the games are downright awful. Anyway, here's some of the best of the bunch:

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved




"Geometry Wars" was one of the most popular XBLA games for a long time, and it continues to attract fans. It has a simple, clean presentation matched by an equally simple premise - blow up as much %$&# as you can without dying. The game has been called "Robotron" on crack, and most of the time, it lives up to its reputation - bright neon explosions inevitably pepper the screen every time you play. The beginning moments are a bit boring, but a couple minutes in, you'll be blasting in and out of a maelstrom of enemies.

Pac-Man: Championship Edition




When people learned yet another "Pac-Man" game was coming to the XBLA, they balked. After all, both the original "Pac-Man" and "Ms. Pac-Man" were already available - how could a new game possibly match these classics? The crazy thing is, "Pac-Man: CE" actually lives up to its predecessors - it plays smoothly, it adds more strategy while preserving what made the originals fun, and the hard 5 minute time limit makes the game into a competitive, point-focused sprint rather than a snooze-inducing marathon.

Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo HD Remix



SPFIITHDR has one of the most unwieldy names on the XBLA, in stark contrast to its kid-friendly, super-deformed character style. It's a puzzle game akin to "Puyo Puyo" or "Columns" - gems drop from the top of the screen, and you match gems of various colors for big points. There's a lot of strategy here - so much that the top players memorize the drop patterns for the various characters - but it's easy enough for even beginners to pick up and play. Several game modes are included, helping this to feel more like a full game than most XBLA titles.

Food: The Perfect Belgian Waffle


I remember the first time our family came into contact with one of those "pour your own waffle" setups. It was in the lounge of a hotel if I recall correctly; there was an industrial grade flipover-type waffle iron, as well as a bunch of plastic cups preloaded with waffle batter. Apparently, other guests were astonished, too - the thing was in constant use. We must have downed at least a couple waffles each.

Through the years, though, it's been tough finding a decent replacement waffle in the various breakfast places we've visited. Oh, we've dallied at Waffle House and other chains, we've tried Mom and Pop restaurants, but nothing quite delivered the satisfying crispiness that the waffle bar had. You could call it an obsession.

Now though, we've hit upon a decent alternative. We use simple Krusteaz batter, a department store waffle iron, maple syrup, strawberries, and whipped cream. It's not quite as good, but it's the next best thing...

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Guns: Photo Ops

As Tam noted, it's become commonplace for presidential hopefuls to go out (with a media entourage, of course) on hunting or skeet-shooting expeditions, all dressed up in camouflage. The camo, however, isn't for the animals; it's usually for voters. If a candidate has a long history of being against gun rights (like John Kerry), these photo ops send an unintended message to the gunowner crowd - "You guys are so stupid I think this one televised trip will make you think I support your positions."

I've been turning over in my head what gun photo op would really make me believe a candidate has turned a new leaf, though. At first I wanted somebody like Rudy or Huckabee to show up at a shooting range with a tricked out AR-15, but then I realized that such an appearance wouldn't prove anything. After all, remember this famous picture of anti-gun Senator Chuck Schumer:
The point is, a lot of people who are against gun rights also own or shoot "scary-looking" guns, since they subscribe to an Orwellian "some for me and none for you" policy.

I think, then, that the deepest sign a candidate now supports gun rights would be for him to take some of the less fortunate on a shooting trip and later, to donate them some firearms. "Arm the poor" might sound silly at first, but just because someone can't afford a fancy car or a fancy house doesn't mean they shouldn't be able to defend themselves from violent crime. And hey, it would be great for the Christmas season.

Music: 3's and 7's

One of the features in "Rock Band" (and most every major console game these days) is downloadable content; additional songs are available off of Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, albeit for a price. The catalog is just a month old, so there are only 32 songs available right now. I chose to give the Queens of the Stone Age song pack a try, mostly because it contained the song "3's and 7's."

To be honest, I hadn't really listened to much QOTSA, but "3's and 7's" was featured in "Guitar Hero 3" and it didn't seem right to have a rhythm game without it. It's a fairly catchy song, I guess, and it certainly beats some of the songs already included in the game. The music video does sorta rip off of Muse's "Knights of Cydonia," though:

Friday, December 28, 2007

TV: Red Dwarf


I have a theory: the more cultish and devoted a fanbase is to a TV show, the more likely the show will have a definable "jump the shark" moment. Most sitcoms, for instance, don't have dedicated watchers, but the big ones that do - your Seinfelds, your Cheers - inevitably get pegged as having some point where the show's quality declined and never quite recovered. And it's not just on this side of the Atlantic...

I first saw "Red Dwarf" on PBS when I was a kid in middle school. It was pretty much tailor-made for my sensibilities - slapstick humor, sci-fi gobbledygook, and sarcastic one-liners all packaged up into a convenient half hour. The BBC2 program tells the story of Lister, a blue-collar average Joe who just happens to work on Red Dwarf, a city-sized starship. An accident freezes him in stasis for millions of years, and he awakens to find himself probably the only remaining human being alive in the universe.

This is a pretty strong premise, and the creators, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, milk it for all it's worth over the first six seasons, adding in several characters including a hologram, a cat-person, and an android. The high-water mark of the show was in Series 6, and the ending, although a cliffhanger, was seemingly the last we'd see of "Red Dwarf."

Until Series 7.

Now, I know many were clamoring for it, but I think it's obvious that the four year hiatus between Series 6 and 7 was not kind to the series. They added characters that many disliked, and the entire look and feel of the show was modified. A regrettable thing, but perhaps it's a good lesson for anyone who would go to the well one time too many,

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Movies: Juno



I once took a screenwriting class in high school, and it was a good experience (I even penned a full-length screenplay of my own). One thing I learned was that it's difficult to write witty dialogue, and it's even harder to write witty dialogue for a comedy. But "Juno," a movie directed by Jason Reitman, is chock full of too-cool-for-school dialogue. It's a comedy-drama about a young girl who finds herself pregnant and decides to give the baby up for adoption - and all the consequences that follow from the decision.

The movie stars Ellen Page, who you might remember from "Hard Candy." She is perfect for this role, and displays some impressive chops - one part snide, Daria-esque sarcasm, and another part confused vulnerability. Alongside her is Michael Cera (playing a character virtually identical to the one in Superbad) and Jennifer Garner. Garner in particular is impressive; this is one of the few movies where she doesn't play a butt-kicking action heroine, and she makes the most of it.

If you're not into rapid-fire conversations that sometimes reference pop culture (yes, even Dario Argento's "Suspiria" is mentioned), you may not like this movie. The relationship between Juno and her baby's father is wrapped up too neatly for my taste, and the eventual ending is so saccharine you might just leave the theater early. Still, though, it's overall a good movie.

Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Books: Dune



The Christmas break reading has gone slower than anticipated, since I've been spending a lot of time playing video games. I did just finish up "Dune," the classic science fiction novel by Frank Herbert. I read the book when I was a youngster, and it was interesting seeing how more than a decade's worth of experience changed my view of the story.

"Dune" is set in the far future on the desert world of Arrakis. There, the spice melange is mined - the most valuable and important substance in the universe, since it makes intserstellar travel possible and extends life. Into this arena steps the Atreides family, and the prose makes clear that Big Things are going to happen.

If you like your messiahs tortured, prescient, and insanely skilled at combat, you'll like the character of Paul Atreides. In some ways, it's a typical revenge story - Paul is forced to grow up in a hurry, but there's a fairly direct payoff against the people who wronged him. Herbert's prose, though sometimes a bit chintzy (if I had a dollar for every time he wrote "Feints within feints"...), is propulsive enough, and the book seldom drags.

A major problem with the book, however, is that it ends with a thud. While this is partly expected because of the serial nature of the story, it still makes for an unsatisfying ending. I never got around to reading the other Dune books, but from what I read on Wikipedia, they get crazy. Immortal half-human half-sandworm kind of crazy.

Tech: Rock Band review



"Rock Band" is a music game for the Xbox 360, the PS2, and the PS3 (I picked up the 360 version). Created by former "Guitar Hero" developer Harmonix, it's a bold, ambitious game matched with an equally bold price tag - $170 for the special edition bundle. This bundle includes the game, a wired guitar controller, a USB mic, and a full drum set, including bass pedal and sticks. You'll immediately be impressed by the size and weight of the package - the darn thing almost needs to be carried by two people.

The idea behind "Rock Band" is simple - since these music games are often great fun for groups, why not get multiple people together playing multiple instruments? And so, right out of that big box, you can have a lead guitarist, a drummer, and a singer doing their stuff simultaneously.

Let's cover each part of the game:

Guitar

As a solo guitar game, "Rock Band" is suprisingly worse than "Guitar Hero 3." The note charts for most songs tend to less interesting and easier to play than in GH3 - for example, I can 5-star most of the tracks in "Rock Band" on Medium, whereas I have yet to even finish GH3 on Medium. Even more vexing is the new Fender wired guitar controller - it has a mushy strum bar and close-set buttons that can introduce errors for those accustomed to "clicky" Guitar Hero guitars.

Vocals

The singing portion of "Rock Band" owes large debts to the Karaoke Revolution and SingStar games. You're graded on pitch and timing, and thankfully the difficulty on Medium is toned down enough so that even if you don't know a song, you can fake your way through it. It's generally fun to sing, but there are large stretches in some songs (guitar solos, for instance) where you're doing nothing at all. The included USB mic feels durable and works well enough.

Drums

There has never been a home drum experience like this, and it's unquestionably the best part of "Rock Band." The timing and control of three independent limbs is a huge stumbling block in the beginning, but once you get the basics down, you'll be hammering away like Neil Peart or John Bonham. There's obviously a lot more to playing real-life drums than what "Rock Band" can teach you, but I'll bet a lot of aspiring drummers will find the game more interesting than the old practice pad and metronome. The drum kit itself feels pretty durable, but the bass pedal has had some well-publicized problems (mine's been fine so far).

Overall

There's a ton of options here for customizing your musician, and your mind will boggle at how many different clothing styles and physical characteristics are mutable here. Wanna make a Hendrix lookalike? No problem. Feel like getting a shaggy-haired Joey Ramone onstage? Easy. The game's visual presentation is clean, though it sometimes feels antiseptic compared to the more stylized "Guitar Hero 3."

The setlist for the game is impressive, featuring everything from the Ramones to Sabbath to Radiohead. The nature of "rock" music makes it hard to please everyone, since there's just so many genres, but you're bound to like at least some of the songs here. And if you don't, "Rock Band" features an ever-growing library of downloadable content. Though the prices for these songs are sometimes high (the average song is $2), considering that with every download you can play guitar, sing, and drum to the song, it feels like a better value. That, and I couldn't resist getting "Buddy Holly."

Rating: 87/100 (subtract 10 points if you have nobody to play with)

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas


Linus Van Pelt: "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, 'Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'"

[Linus picks up his blanket and walks back towards Charlie Brown]

Linus Van Pelt: That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Miscellany: A Christmas Countdown, part 3

One of my favorite yearly rituals is tuning in to watch "A Christmas Story." It's one of the few Christmas movies that doesn't have some sort of sappy message or moral to impart - in fact, the film is unrelentingly obsessed with Ralphie's quest to acquire a Red Ryder BB gun to the point of absurdity.

It's also a strikingly secular, consumerist version of Christmas - none of the characters mention the actual Christmas story (you know, the one involving Joseph getting cuckolded by God) and the Wicked Witch from "The Wizard of Oz" is way, way more prominent than Jesus is in the movie. Some might see this as sacrilege, but let's keep in mind that the Christmas celebration has its origins in pre-Christian winter festivals anyway, and that Easter is much more important theologically than Christmas will ever be.

In any event, the movie has been the subject of many tributes, so I'll just focus on the central mystery - how exactly does "The Old Man," Ralphie's Dad, know what to get Ralphie? In the movie, Ralphie never mentions the carbine to his father, and from his mother's reactions through the story, it's clear she never told her husband anything about Ralphie's quest, either. Maybe it's a guy thing :P.

Merry Christmas, folks!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Guns: The Dangerous Game Rifle

I've never hunted a dangerous animal (heck, I've never hunted anything), but the concept has a certain romantic appeal. In my mind, it conjures up images of Victorian-era British hunters in Africa wearing pith helmets and carrying custom made elephant guns from companies like Holland & Holland.

Nowadays, the bolt-action rifle is pretty popular, though people still use doubles and other action types on occasion. The typical big game cartridge starts at something like .375 H&H Magnum and moves up from there. These guns are made for a singular purpose (reliably stopping a charging animal), and are not suited for punching holes in paper all day.

I've only shot one of these rifles once, and to be sure, it's not fun for your shoulder (something like twice the kick of a .30-06). This, however, is ridiculous:

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Movies: I Am Legend

Will Smith has become a huge box-office draw, and "I Am Legend" is unlikely to break that string of success. For the first hour or so, it's about as taut and well-made as you could ask a post-apocalyptic thriller to be. Think "Castaway," but instead of a slightly crazy guy on a deserted island in the middle of the Pacific, you have a slightly crazy guy on a deserted island that just happens to be Manhattan.




The story is loosely based on Richard Matheson's novel of the same name, though in truth, it resembles "The Omega Man" (a 1971 adaptation starring Charlton Heston) more than anything else. Robert Neville is seemingly the lone survivor of a plague that wipes out most of humanity. Some people, however, have been transformed into vicious zombies. By day, he works on a cure and gathers materials necessary for survival. By night, he hides in his apartment from the onslaught of the infected.

Smith's acting abilities have really matured through all his blockbuster films, and he gives a good solo performance without overly resorting to hackneyed screaming or crazy-talk (though of course both occur, as for most of the runtime, Smith is the only person on-screen). The problems here mostly lie with the uninteresting portrayal of the infected (some characteristics are hinted at that I would have liked to see explored, but they end the movie as basically mindless zombies) and the awful third act (with a nonsensical ending that will have you shrugging as you leave the theater).

Rating: 6/10

Miscellany: A Christmas Countdown, part 2


If there's one thing my family has always done, it's the tradition of putting up a Christmas tree. In an age where you can buy a realistic-looking fake tree that is not only inexpensive (thanks to cheap overseas labor) but probably better overall for the environment, it might be considered a luxury to go out and select a freshly cut tree to prop up in your house for a month.

I've always felt that there's something undeniably special about a real tree, though. We don't bother with tinsel (hard to clean up) or any food-related decorations (like popcoirn strings or gingerbread cookies), but we do hang ornaments and lights on the tree. For the longest time, we had a gaudily lit star at the top; it had several different colors of lights on it that would blink in succession. Thankfully, we ditched that oldie and went with a proper angel instead.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Movies: Capote


Philip Seymour Hoffman is in pretty much everything these days. I still remember one of his breakout roles; he played rock writer Lester Bangs in "Almost Famous." Now, almost a decade later, he's popping up alongside big names like Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise. "Capote," directed by Bennett Miller, is one of the major reasons Hoffman is so famous nowadays.

The film is a story about a particular segment in Truman Capote's life - the period in which he researched and wrote "In Cold Blood," his famous account of the grisly killing of a Kansas family. Along the way, though, he starts to develop a relationship with one of the murderers, a fact which will wreak havoc on his emotions.

Hoffman is indeed fantastic as Truman Capote, nailing his mannerisms and the ambivalence he feels toward the whole situation. On the one hand, he sympathizes with the killers, as they share a similar life story, but on the other, he wants to finish his book, and that can only happen when the killers are executed. Seeing which impulse finally wins over is one of the motivations to see the movie to the end.

Aside from that dilemma, though, there isn't much in the way of conflict or plot to propel the story forward, which makes some parts of the movie feel like a series of vignettes strung together. And though Catherine Keener, Chris Cooper, and Clifton Collins Jr. all put in great performances, the movie sometimes artificially feels like a one-man show (a potential downfall of all biopics).

Rating: 8/10

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Miscellany: A Christmas Countdown, part 1

I look at the calendar with an absent stare. "Holy schlamoly, there are only 5 days left 'till Christmas! Where is the time going?" Anyway, in an attempt to make Shangrila Towers more Christmassy (remember, "Brazil" was a Christmas movie, too), here's a little nativity scene from our friends at "For Tax Reasons." Warning - LARPing ahead:



And the response video:

Books: The Book of Classic Board Games


It's rare that I describe a book as "charming," but "The Book of Classic Board Games" certainly merits that description. Published by Klutz (you know, that Scholastic Press imprint that makes all those kids' books that come with stuff attached to them), it's filled to the brim with colorful and often endearing illustrations. The concept? The "board" of each game is printed as a separate page in the book. There are entertaining board games from all different time periods and different cultures which, when you think about it, really says something about us as a species.

I've played many games of checkers and backgammon using the book, and there's even a decent explanation of the rules of that all-time popular strategy game, Go. Some of the graphics pop right off the pages - check out the neat clay sculpting used for the board of "The Dalmatian Pirates and the Volga Bulgars" (a version of Fox and Geese):


The only flaw of the package might be the flimsy plastic zipper case that holds all the playing pieces with the book. It'll probably tear after extended use, but it's a small price to pay for such a fun collection.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

News: Road Rage

Hygens Labidou, a black business owner, probably never thought he'd have to use his gun in self-defense. After all, he had possessed his concealed weapons permit since at least 1991. All that changed last week when two enraged men allegedly attacked him in a road rage incident. Labidou responded by shooting them.

The link provided is a sobering reminder of the emotions that run through you after any shooting (click on the 911 audio). Mr. Labidou is almost beside himself, screaming for paramedics as the two men lay dying in front of him. He is so agitated it's hard for the 911 dispatcher to even communicate coherently with him.

I say the two men "allegedly" attacked Labidou in the first paragraph, but judging from the police description, it seems clear Labidou was in the right. When you see a pickup cut you off and stop in front of you, and two big guys (one of whom was armed with a knife) approach your vehicle shouting obscenities ("N——- get out of the truck"), that's a signal that Something's Up™. While it's a tragedy someone died, it'd be even more of a tragedy to let racism, road rage, and lawlessness win.

Miscellany: Changing Views on Dentistry


When I was young, I actually liked going to the dentist. I knew some kids feared it, but it never really concerned me. I'd normally show up to a checkup, where the hygienist would scrape my teeth with her tools and the dentist would poke around a bit. Even if I had a cavity that needed to be drilled, they used enough anesthetic that it wasn't a problem.

Things started to change after my old hygienist moved away. The replacement, while a nice enough lady, was, shall we say, unmerciful with my teeth. Each new scaling or poking produced fresh pain and fresh blood, and by the end of my appointments, the dental bib looked like a horror movie.

I only bring this up because I haven't been to the dentist in a year(!), so it's time for an overdue cleaning.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Tech: Final Fantasy Tactics - The War of the Lions review


Normally, a port of a 10 year old PS1 game wouldn't garner a lot of attention, especially on the oft-ignored Sony PlayStation Portable. But when that 10 year old game is one of the most popular strategy-RPGs of all time, people tend to take notice. I picked up "Final Fantasy Tactics" for the PSP to see how it stacks up to the original PlayStation game.

I played the original about five years ago, so the experience is still relatively fresh in my head. It was and still is a massive time sink (no surprise there) and my dorm room was often filled with the sound of the endlessly repeating battle music. And, for the most part, FFT for the PSP is a faithful port of the original game - same story, same play mechanics, same graphics and sound, all shrunk to fit on the PSP's relatively small screen.

There have been some additions, though. The whole game has been nicely re-translated (the original translation was filled with errors to the point of being incomprehensible), and there are a whole bunch of nifty animated, fully voice-acted cutscenes that show key story events. Balthier from FFXII even supposedly makes an appearance, although I haven't gotten there yet. But by and large, this is the same game people played ten years ago (except with some annoying slowdown during spells and abilities).

If there's complaints to be leveled at the game aside from the inexplicable slowdown, it's that it didn't try and fix the underlying problems of FFT. The lack of any kind of penalty for moving in and around enemy forces means the game still often boils down to "surround the weakest enemy, kill him, wash, rinse, repeat." There is still a lot of grinding needed before your party can tangle with some of the tougher encounters, and the difficulty level ranges from stupidly easy to stupefyingly hard.

Rating: 82/100

Music: Somewhere in My Memory

I have a soft spot for the first two "Home Alone" movies, even though they aren't cinema masterpieces or anything (unless you prefer broad-as-a-barn slapstick comedy with troubled child actors). One thing that really elevates them above stuff like "The Santa Clause" and "Jingle All the Way" is the masterful score by John Williams. Reportedly, Williams signed up to do the movies because he always wanted to write Christmas music.

The effort paid off - the score was nominated for an Oscar. And so was this song, "Somewhere in My Memory":



It's a sappy, heart-tugging little number - perfect for the holidays. Unlike many modern Christmas songs, it's gotten a lot of amateur performances:

Monday, December 17, 2007

Miscellany: Lazy Winter Days

Winter break has always been the best part of the year for me. I mean, getting a few weeks off from school is great in and of itself, but couple that with the fact that the vacation time coincides with Christmas, and you have a recipe for delight. I settled down today to "churn some grist" for the old blog - reading a few books, watching some TV, and playing through video games that I'd neglected during the semester.

The nicest part of the day was when I got an impromptu tennis lesson from my grandfather. Tennis in December might only be possible in Florida, but it was a fine day for it, with clear skies and a sunny breeze. And, I'm not afraid to say it, my octogenarian Grandpa still can kick the crap outta me when it comes to tennis. I wish I had some of this guy's skills:

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Guns: On "safe" storage

In my opinion, the most secure method of storing a gun in your home is by carrying it around on your person, but sometimes this isn't possible (especially with long guns). So, one of the realities of owning a firearm is that eventually, you're going to have to leave it unattended. There's been a lot of debate recently on how far someone should go in securing their guns, some of which has gotten more heated than it should be.

For my part, I experimented with various security measures, including a gun cabinet and trigger locks. I realized that everything that makes a gun harder for an unauthorized person to use also adds another layer between you and your firearm - time that could be the difference between life and death if you ever need it. Granted, this might be a reasonable tradeoff for a family with toddlers roaming about; for my personal situation, though, it's low on my list of priorities.

A final note regarding laws requiring gun owners to lock up their guns or face punishment -it's important to remember that most people don't have a safe for their car keys, or their power tools, or their household chemicals. Most parents don't put safety screens on their toilets or their bathtubs, and most don't bother to lock up every single knife, blade, and pointy stick they own. The upshot of it is that many things can be used and misused, and I don't believe in forcing people to lock up all their possessions, including guns, just because something might pose a threat to somebody somewhere.

Tech: It's too early for this

You find yourself in some strange situations when you're hunting for Christmas gifts. For instance, who could have predicted that a few days after finishing up exams, I'd be standing in a line outside of a Super Target waiting to buy a Nintendo Wii? In any merciful universe, I'd have been home in bed, enjoying Christmas break. Instead, I volunteered to try to purchase one of these elusive video game consoles for my cousins.

The Nintendo Wii was last year's hot item, too, if you recall. The pre-Christmas shopping rush annihilated the supply on retailer's shelves this year, and they're selling out all over the place. I don't blame Nintendo for underproducing, though - the Wii, after only a single year in existence, has already outsold Nintendo's last console, the GameCube, in Japan. No one could have predicted this kind of demand.

Anyway, I did manage to snag a Wii. But the people who only came to the Target at 7:30AM (half an hour before opening) missed out. :P

Saturday, December 15, 2007

TV: Extras

One of the funniest shows I've seen in recent memory is the British comedy "Extras" (it's airing on HBO here in the States). It's been called the UK's answer to "Curb Your Enthusiasm" by critics, and that description's not far off - struggling actor Andy Millman (played by Ricky Gervais) sees British show business from the trenches. He works as a film extra who desperately seeks bigger roles, and he constantly rubs noses with a parade of guest stars (a who's-who of British cinema - Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Orlando Bloom, Daniel Radcliffe). Here's a clip:



Millman's bumbling agent (played by the scene-stealing Stephen Merchant) is hilarious, and his mismanagement of Andy's career is gleeful and over-the-top. Gervais and Merchant have excellent comedic chemistry together:



Eventually, in the second season of the show, Andy gets the reins of his own sitcom. Although he "sells out" numerous times, he somehow gets nominated for a BAFTA, and hilarity ensues:



I may be a sucker for Britcoms, but "Extras" gets my thumbs-up.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Miscellany: A Christmas Newsletter

One of the most curious Christmas traditions is the Christmas newsletter. You've probably read a few of these sometimes long, sometimes obnoxious little sheets of paper stuffed into the annual Christmas cards people send out. They invariably drone on about family details no one cares about, and are tossed quickly. When my family decided to start sending them out in our cards, I was understandably worried about the embarrassment we might be bringing upon ourselves.

That is, until I learned I'd get to write the newsletter.

From the beginning, I knew I wanted to write something a little different. Rather than focus on our family, I thought I'd feature all the places and people we visit in any given year. While most people's eyes glaze over when faced with paragraph after paragraph of how Donna Jean graduated from so-and-so, or how Mary Anne lost her new job, I figured people like seeing pictures of faraway places, even if they don't even remember who we are.

The newsletter was a big hit, and it's now a continuing Christmas tradition. So every year, I take out the photo albums, see where we've been, and start writing.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sports: Dig into the past, and all you get is dirty...

The Mitchell report came out recently, and already the accusations and denials have started flying. Now, I'm not the biggest baseball fan, so I can't really comment on how important or unimportant this sort of saga is to the future of the sport, but I do know that other sports unquestionably have athletes doping, injecting, and smearing stuff to enhance their performance.

Whether it's "the clear," "the cream," fresh red blood cells, human growth hormone, or what have you, it seems there's no end to the list of ways to get faster and stronger. It's sort of a perverse example of capitalism at work - when you have hundreds of millions of dollars up for grabs, some people will do nearly anything...But hey, why limit yourself to homo sapiens?

Food: Papa John's Pan Pizza


The three big national pizza delivery chains - Pizza Hut, Domino's, and Papa John's - are kinda even in terms of quality. None of them will give you a memorable pizza, but when you need to feed a fickle crowd, an inoffensively bland pizza is better than no food at all. Sometimes, though, the variations they stick on the average pizza (stuffed crust, thin crust, what have you) go horribly wrong.

Case in point - while studying, I ordered a Papa John's "Perfect Pan" pizza. It's supposed to ape either Pizza Hut's pan style or Chicago deep dish, but it doesn't do a very good job in either event. The pizza was too bready and the sauce, billed as zesty and robust, was instantly forgettable. The entire taste of the pizza seemed off. Oh well - I guess a memorable disappointment is better than a forgotten dish - sorta?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

School: End of Exam Rituals

Another semester, another set of law school exams completed. There's an extreme, almost palpable sense of relief when that final test is turned in - you definitely feel like celebrating. One ritual I started when I became old enough is going out for a drink with the guys. It's probably a bad habit, but a cold draught Guinness or two once in awhile really hits the spot.



There are other rituals, too. I like to save shaving and nail-clipping until the tests are over - a bit of superstition, that. Cleaning up the place, a priority that understandably falls by the wayside during the studying period, also takes center stage.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Links: Arthouse Games


Can a video game be "art"? While it's undisputed that video games can have art in them (in the form of excellent graphics or memorable music), the discussion of whether video games themselves can ever rise to the level of other media, like movies and books, has been an interesting debate. It's also weird how such questions of expression interlock with First Amendment law and politicians advocating restrictions on violent video games.

Arthouse Games, a blog by artist Jason Rohrer, attempts to chronicle the "artgame," a species that usually consists of small, independent games far away from the mainstream me-too 3D first-person-shooters. In my experience, the only big budget games that I thought might qualify as art were "Ico" and "Shadow of the Colossus." Not surprisingly, both of those games had memorable stories, and the way in which the stories were told (as a puzzle game and an action game, respectively) played a huge role in how effective they were - they just wouldn't have worked as films or books.

Jason's recent GAMMA 256 entry, Passage, is quite an interesting little game. You should probably play it. Is it art? I'm not sure, but it certainly merits discussion.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Guns: Carrying a gun

Others more eloquent than myself have answered the question. And many stories are written about people who make the choice. In the end, carrying a firearm for self-defense is always a personal decision, almost the most personal decision one can make. I thought it'd be interesting to discuss what led to me getting a concealed weapons permit nearly three years ago...

Like a lot of people nowadays, I didn't shoot growing up, and I had never even really thought about guns or gun control until I started doing a student presentation in high school about it. While doing the research for the presentation, I noticed that for every website or organization dedicated to gun control, there were literally dozens of others that advocated the opposite - fewer restrictions on guns, fewer laws, and more people owning and shooting guns. I have to admit that at the time, though, sites like Oleg's carried what was an alien and opposite worldview.

Don't guns just increase the possibility someone will get hurt? Why did people carry guns? Is life so dangerous that you can't get by without one? These are all questions that people ask. Unfortunately, the media isn't exactly the best source of info on the subject, often painting someone who would carry a gun for self-defense as a vigilante:







Even people who do carry concealed weapons sometimes do a middling job at answering these questions. My theory is that there's a bit of a disconnect between someone who carries and someone who doesn't - the two can move through the same culture, work at the same jobs, have the same friends and hobbies - but the perspective has been shifted just so, enough that a simple question can spawn a whole lot of confusion.

Some have cited the pragmatic reasons for carrying a gun. Look at the tragic death of Sean Taylor - here was a guy who could easily run faster, react quicker, and hit harder than 99.9% of the people on the planet, but he was no match for an armed attacker. And then there's the recent shootings in Omaha and Colorado - one was ended by an armed security guard, and the other continued until the shooter killed himself. But these reasons, while certainly valid, weren't really my motivation for carrying.

For me, the act of attending college, that fateful first time away from home (which some people seem to mistake for a party) was a strange experience. I realized then that I was going to have to look after myself - cleaning up, getting to school, and keeping healthy. Part of that last bit, somewhere along the way, involved owning and carrying guns.

But perhaps I give too much space to the firearm itself. The thing is just a piece of metal. It won't "go off." It's only as safe as the person using it. It doesn't have a mind of its own, like some people would have you think:




So, in the end, why did I decide to carry a gun? The shortest and most correct answer is to defend myself and my loved ones. The long answer, buried or transfigured in questions of personal autonomy, personal responsibility, and personal identity, is still something I'm figuring out.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Movies: Superbad

Although the IMDb page says it debuted in 2007, in reality, the roots of "Superbad" can be found in tales that are thousands of years old:

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

- Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces



The tale of Seth and Evan, two high school seniors looking to finally pair off with some girls for the summer, is about as mythical as you might expect. Here is a world where cops are shooting at stop signs, where girls are menstruating on your pants, where getting a pack of booze can be more perilous than jumping off a cliff. It's silly, slapdash fun, but it's also a fairly typical hero's journey. What seems like a simple plan to get the booze and get the girls turns into one long, long night.

The chemistry between the two lead actors, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, is excellent, even though Jonah looks like perhaps the oldest high schooler ever. In making this movie, it's obvious the creative team (writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, director Greg Mottola, and producer Judd Apatow) wasn't trying to perfectly replicate the high school experience - this is high school, all right, but larger and more dysfunctional; this is high school that's superbad.

There are some things that keep the flick from gaining a higher rating, unfortunately. While there are some laughs, on the whole, the film just wasn't as funny for me as it should have been (the same could be said of Apatow's other hits, "Knocked Up" and "The 40-Year Old Virgin"). And, as usual, the middle of the plot sags like an old mattress. But, all in all, the tight ending and fun characters make seeing "Superbad" worthwhile.

Rating: 8/10

Music: Ramble On

It's probably a bad habit, but I listen to music when I study. One of my favorite tricks is to put on an entire band's discography and listen to the albums, one after the other. It's great for those late-night studying sessions, and it lets you sample even the lesser-known works of an artist.

"Ramble On" is certainly not the best Led Zeppelin song. They didn't perform it live, and Robert Plant was reportedly embarrassed by all the Tolkien references in the lyrics, but it's pretty catchy nonetheless. Plant would be really abashed at this music video, though:

Saturday, December 08, 2007

School: Evidence final coming up

The law of evidence is a strange and wonderful world that applies in both civil and criminal trials. The first concept that most evidence courses begin with is hearsay. It's a simple notion, really - that out-of-court statements cannot be used to prove what they assert. The tough thing is that there are so many darn exceptions to the rule.

Here's a fun video showing some of the exceptions to hearsay (audio level's a bit low):

Miscellany: Clean Our "Ear"


He didn't turn out to be a very good governor (at least, he's no friend of gun rights), but I have to admit, Austrian accent + commercial = funny.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Miscellany: Double Dutch

Little known fact - I used to be pretty good at double dutch. But not half as good as these folks:



I ahve no idea why the Japanese teams are so good at it. Maybe jumping rope is more popular there...?

Tech: Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles review

I'm a big-time Castlevania fan. I still remember gawking at the then-new Super Castlevania IV during elementary school (actually, it was the school's after-school care program, to be precise). Creepy Gothic graphics, a great soundtrack, and level after level of platforming action? How could you not like that? To be honest, though, I didn't really own a Castlevania game until much later, and now the latest in my collection is "Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles" for the Sony PSP.



It's a great value - for $30, you get the 3D remake of "Castlevania: Rondo of Blood" (widely regarded as the best in the series, but never released in America), and emulations of both the original "Rondo" and another classic, "Castlevania: Symphony of the Night," a PlayStation classic that's been the template for pretty much every 'Vania since 1997. There's hours of whip-cracking, heart-collecting, skeleton-bashing fun here, and its especially suited to the PSP's pickup-and-go mentality.

If there's criticism, it's criticism that's inherent to what the Castlevania series has always been - a difficult series of action-platformers. Certain parts of "Rondo" (Stage 5', I'm talking to you) are almost tooth-gnashingly hard, and even "Symphony" can be a chore if you don't level up your character and wander into a fight you're not ready for. Plus, the translation to PSP wasn't perfect; you'll get some blurriness in the older games and even the 3D remake can look a little washed out at times. Still though, this is a required purchase for any Castlevania fan.

Rating: 87/100 (subtract 15 if you don't really like Castlevania :-P)

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Books (sorta): Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri instruction manual


I know what you're thinking. How can an instruction manual for a PC game be counted as a book? Well, "Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri" (known by the delightful acronym "SMAC") is no ordinary PC game, and its manual is no ordinary manual.

SMAC is a turn-based strategy game from the same guys that brought you the "Civilization" series (in fact, it's part of the series in all but name, and many of its ideas creep up in later Civs). The Civilization games, though, could rely on human history to furnish a great setting for your empire-building. SMAC had to provide its own backstory, because it's set in a future where humankind has managed to colonize a fictional planet orbiting Alpha Centauri, Earth's closest stellar neighbor.

The manual is about the size of a paperback novel - nearly 250 pages. While much of this space is occupied by gameplay mechanics and tables, there are fascinating sections describing alien life - including entire hypothetical ecosystems and astronomical speculation (heck, they even have a "Suggested Reading" section that includes stuff like Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot"). Even cooler are the designer notes in the appendix, which serve as sort of a "director's commentary" for the game and give real insight into how tough it is to make a science-fiction world believable and yet alien. I don't suppose you'll ever find the manual in a bookstore, but if you do ever come across it, it's worth a look.

Food: Gumby's Pizza/Court of Heros


There are times when you go to a restaurant without knowing exactly why. The food may not be spectacular, the atmosphere might be run-of-the-mill, but darn it - you just go there. I have that kind of relationship with the combination "Gumby's Pizza/Court of Heros" place that is nestled in the corner of the Sweetbay shopping center on 34th here in Gainesville.

It's a smallish sports bar lumped together with a smallish pizza parlor, which is pretty strange when you think about it. There's a pool table in the front, as well as a TV trivia channel that is fun for passing the time. The pizza, while edible, is certainly nothing special. But there's just something about those big wooden booths and the classic rock that is lazily piped out of the speakers overhead that keeps bringing me back.

For instance, today, right before my Patent Law exam, I stopped in for a philly cheese steak. I ordered it with spinach, and to my surprise, it tasted pretty good. I opened up my book and started studying, and I was the only customer in the whole joint.

Rating: 2/4 stars

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

School: Patent Law


My Patent Law final is coming up, though it's multiple-choice (always easier than writing an essay, IMHO). If you're interested in learning about patents at all, I recommend this video. It's a lecture by Katherine White, and you can tell just from watching that she's a pretty skilled patent attorney. It's three years old, which is a long time in patent law - there are patent reform bills in the works as I type this. But hey, anything that complicates the law is good for patent attorneys. :P

Tech: Sony PSP Slim Review


When it first debuted here in mid-2005, Sony's PlayStation Portable video game console was a joke. With an asking price of $250 and a dearth of decent games, the thing sold like molasses. Crappy TV spots like these didn't help much:








Now, nearing the end of 2007, Sony is betting on a $80 price drop, a slight redesign of the hardware, and a much better games lineup to entice shoppers this holiday season. Let's see if they were successful...

Out of the box, the PSP has an embarrassment of features. As before, you can play MP3s and MP4 video, as well as view photos. Since the PSP's launch, Sony's added some nice new features, like a web browser, support for WMA, and a nice RSS reader that makes keeping up with your favorite podcasts a snap. All of your media is stored on Memory Stick Duo cards, which have also drastically fallen in price since the PSP launch - now an 8 GB card can be acquired for way under $100.

What gamers are really interested in, naturally, are the games. Again, Sony's managed to attract a much better lineup of games to the system - from Konami franchises like "Metal Gear Solid" and "Castlevania" to Capcom hits like "Street Fighter" and "Mega Man." If you like strategy RPGs, the system literally has a truckload available - good ports of "Disgaea" and "Final Fantasy Tactics," as well as original games like "Jeanne D'Arc" and "Metal Gear Acid."


The new PSP "Slim" isn't a very radical revision. Sony took out the seldom-used IR port, and they reduced the weight of the system by about a third. There's also a TV-out feature, but you'll need a TV that supports progressive scan in order to play PSP games on your TV, and in any case, it's awkward to have your PSP tethered to your TV. It's not worth upgrading if you have the original version of the PSP, but it's a decent revision.

So what's the downside? Why do I still like my DS Lite better? The problems with the PSP have always been more basic than the price or the games...the system just isn't well suited to travel. It's very long (a full inch or so longer than a DS Lite), the battery life is nothing spectacular, and the system's analog nub isn't that great. Granted, these issues are all minor, but they detract from what should be a great portable system.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Guns: A Tale of Two Gun Reviews

Here's a professionally done review of the CZ-75 SP-01:




And here's an amateur review of the CZ-75 P-01:





Oddly enough, I find the amateur review much more informative and a lot more interesting. It might not have flashy range demonstrations or cool product placement, but it's the honest opinion of a guy who went out and bought a pistol with his own money, not at the behest of some editor or advertiser.

The P-01 is my carry gun, too, and I can safely echo pretty much all of Seanwins' comments. It's comfortable and easy to shoot, and I'd put it up against any aluminum framed autoloader on the market (man, now I'm starting to sound like an informercial). The above two videos just go to show you - when it comes to a thing like gun reviews, you never know where the next great review is going to come from.

Miscellany: Exam time...

...I'm in a hurry, so I'll just post something interesting.

Monday, December 03, 2007

TV: Musings on "Beauty and the Geek"

There's something inherently divisive about reality shows. In the course of watching one, the participants often have some outrageous characteristic or make some crazy comment (Rich going buck-naked on "Survivor," for example) that puts them into a "love to hate" or "hate to love" slot. It's almost certainly a calculated move by the producers to get people to root for (or jeer) certain characters.

The show "Beauty and the Geek," while not a good reality show, is a good example of this phenomenon. It features a "Beauty" (a pretty and popular girl) and a "Geek" (a socially inept guy). There's already a gender bias - you see, the "Geeks" are almost never girls because it's difficult to find a geeky girl that many guys wouldn't sleep with anyway. Then, when you add in the social cliques that seem to exist in high schools all over the place, you get instant identification with the people on screen.

Strangely enough, though, the eliminations are done using a quiz show-like format for both the Beauty and the Geek. It'd be much more realistic to send the Geek into a social situation where he has to perform a task rather than have him compete at what is essentially a multiple-choice test. In any event, I'll probably never have occasion to go on this show; not because I'm not a geek (good Lord, look at this blog), but because I'm not willing to send in a crappy audition tape like this one:

Sunday, December 02, 2007

News: Whoops

Looks like the Hugo Chevez train derailed somewhere along the way. In a startling display of intelligent self-interest, voters defeated a bunch of measures that would have given the Venezuelan president more power over the economy. I suppose the RCTV thing ticked off more people than Chavez thought.

Then again, when you have an amendment up for vote that essentially says, "Let me rule over you for life," it doesn't take a genius to figure out that it might not be a good idea. But then again, what do you expect from somebody with a huge ego?:

Music: Knights of Cydonia

The British progressive rock band Muse has drawn some unflattering comparisons with Radiohead (okay, people have flat-out dismissed them as copycats), so it's no surprise that their latest album, "Black Holes and Revelations," is very different from their previous work. I listened to Muse's early albums during undergrad, but the first exposure I got to this new phase of their career came from playing "Guitar Hero III."

You see, GHIII features the final track of BH&R, entitled "Knights of Cydonia." It's a meandering sci-fi mariachi journey through a soundscape filled with lead singer Matthew Bellamy's furiously distorted vocals. It's over-the-top, it's grandiose, and it might not be your cup of tea, but good Lord, it sticks in your head.

The video is pretty good, though - a hip little nod to spaghetti westerns, apocalyptic '70s flicks, and chop-socky cinema:

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Links: Astronomy Cast

I've always been an astronomy buff (there was even an early blog post to this effect), but let's face it - the stuff you see on the Discovery Channel is for people who may or may not have a focused interest in the subject. Here on the Web, though, it's much easier for an educational show to be truly educational (that is, informative to someone who's already taken college-level physics). "Astronomy Cast," a podcast hosted by Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay, fits the bill perfectly.

For example, the show about the inflation of the Universe right after the Big Bang was pretty neat. The hosts quickly dealt with the elementary misconception that all the Universe's matter "exploded" out somehow. Dr. Gay also made a good analogy to illustrate one theory of how disparate regions in the Universe achieved the same temperature - imagine a piece of Silly Putty with an ink print on it. If you stretch the putty out into a thin enough sheet, soon any given one-inch square looks like its neighbor.

If there's one thing you get from listening to an astronomer describe the Universe, it's how mind-bogglingly huge the Universe is. But here's Morgan Freeman to hammer the point home:

Movies: Grosse Pointe Blank

I'm of the firm opinion that Minnie Driver sucks the air out of any scene she appears in, and nowhere is that feeling confirmed more than in "Grosse Pointe Blank," a semi-romantic comedy film directed by George Armitage. Now, I have nothing against Ms. Driver personally, but there's just something off with all of her romantic interactions on-screen. But I digress...

"Grosse Pointe Blank" has a great setup - jaded hitman Martin Blank (played by John Cusack) is traveling back to a high school reunion, based on the advice of his therapist and his secretary. In his hometown, he runs into an old flame (Driver), old friends, and rival hitmen who want to kill him. There's stuff that happens, but everything gets sorted out eventually, as you might expect.

The movie has some laughs, but it's certainly not up to the same level as Cusack cult films like "High Fidelity" and "Being John Malkovich." The chemistry between Cusack and Driver feels forced, though if anyone can play the indignant jilted girl at the prom, it's Minnie Driver. But, in the end, it's a decent movie backed up by a great '80s soundtrack.

Rating: 7/10

"Grosse Pointe Blank" also features some fairly outlandish gunfights. This convenience store sequence, with Martin fending off a Basque terrorist/assassin, is probably the most over-the-top of the bunch:

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